HE MAY have been blonde and an Ajax player, but Ruud Geels is rarely mentioned in conversations when the great Dutch masters are discussed. Could it be that he was prematurely balding in a time when long, flowing hair was de rigeur, or the fact he was overshadowed by more celebrated players. Or perhaps it was because he never moved out of the Benelux region. More likely is that Geels was not your typical Dutch player of the Total Football era. Score goals? He did that in his sleep, but according to some that played with him or against him, he could do little else.
That may a little unkind on a player who netted 318 league goals in 473 games. He was top scorer in the Eredivisise a record five times – 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1981. How could you possibly ignore such credentials?
The Netherlands national team could afford to discount such ability. After all, when Geels was at his peak, the Dutch had the core of their World Cup squads at their disposal. They didn’t necessarily need an out-and-out striker in much the same way that Spain’s Tika-Taka team didn’t always require a centre forward. Geels played in one major tournament, and that was Euro 1976, when a troubled and under-performing Netherlands team benefitted from two goals from the Haarlem-born forward.
Geels proved that you didn’t need to look like a defector from Amsterdam’s hippy communes to be successful at football in the 1970s. Rinus Michels’ 1974 squad, adorned with beads, open shirts and necklaces, gave off the musky scent of free spirit, free love and free-flowing football. Geels didn’t look like he fitted into that groove in much the same way that Ralph Coates, Bobby Charlton and Pop Robson didn’t belong in an era dominated by the likes of George Best. That said, the marvelous Focus keyboard player, Thijs van Leer, had a similar hairstyle!
But Geels knew how to score goals – everywhere he was employed. He started with Telstar of Ijmuiden, just 17 miles north of his home town of Haarlem. He became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Eredivisise at the age of 17 and 235 days. He then moved to Feyenoord in 1966, but opportunities were limited for the 18 year-old as the Rotterdam club had top strikers like Ove Kindvall in their ranks. In 1969-70, Feyenoord won the European Cup thanks to Kindvall’s goal but Geels did get a stab at the big time, playing in the first round against Iceland’s KR and scoring four times in the 12-2 first leg win after coming on as a 35th minute substitute. He also netted twice in the second leg.
Geels, unable to make the breakthrough at De Kuip, despite scoring 46 goals in 89 Eredivisie games, moved to Go Ahead Eagles in 1970. In the 1971-72 season, when Ajax conquered all, Geels was instrumental in the Eagles beating Cruyff and co. by 3-2 at the Adelaarshorst stadium – Ajax’s only defeat that year. In 1972, he moved to Belgium where he lined up with Club Brugge. He won the Belgian League with Bruges and was looking to move by the time the 1974 World Cup came around.
This was the year when Dutch football reached its pinnacle and then started to decline. Ajax, for example, had lost Cruyff to Barcelona and also lost their stranglehold on the European Cup. In 1974, Neeskens would also seek refuge in Spain at the Nou Camp. In 1973-74, Ajax dropped to third in the league and were beaten in the second round of the European Cup by CSKA Sofia, the sort of team they would have dismantled with Cruyff in their side. The era of golden Ajax was coming to a close.
Geels was being courted by Amsterdam’s finest, however, and new manager Jans Kraay signed him after the World Cup. Geels was in the Dutch squad for West Germany after winning three caps in the run-up and he was given the number one shirt by Rinus Michels, perhaps emphasising the “total football” concept of anyone playing everywhere. He never got onto the field during the finals, the aftermath of which left a cloud hanging over Dutch football.
At new-look Ajax, Geels scored 30-plus goals in 1974-75 and topped the Eredivisie list, but not everyone was convinced, despite his impressive aerial ability and uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. In David Winner’s excellent book, Brilliant Orange, Jan Mulder said: “In front of goal incredible. He was a fine technician. He was a great goalscorer, but nothing more. He had no passing, no dribbling. In the game, he didn’t do much.”
In 1975-76, the great Ajax side continued to break up and Michels returned to steady the ship. Geels continued to score prolifically and was top marksman in the Eredivisie with 29 goals, but Ajax were still stuck in third place. One personal landmark was a five-goal haul for Ajax as they won 6-0 at old rivals Feyenoord.
The following season, Ajax won the title for the first time since 1973 with Geels scoring 34 times. He scored another 30 in 1977-78 making it four consecutive years as Dutch football’s leading scorer. But then he moved on after Ajax showed little interest in extending his contract – somewhat surprising given his career haul with the club of 123 goals in 131 league games.
Geels signed for Anderlecht for a year – linking up with Aire Haan and Robbie Rensenbrink – before returning to the Netherlands to spend five years in a prolonged swansong with Sparta Rotterdam, PSV Eindhoven and NAC Breda. He is one of the few players to have appeared for Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV.
Geels is fondly remembered in the Netherlands as a phenomenal goalscorer, but was he truly appreciated by the establishment? Prolific strikers often rail against the trend of teamwork, defensive responsibility and sweat and toil. They are often viewed with some suspicion that they are simply not doing enough – for example, Sir Alf Ramsey never really trusted Jimmy Greaves. In the Netherlands, even in 1974, the media considered that Geels, rather than Cruyff, was the best source of goals.
BBC commentator David Coleman said in the 1974 FA Cup final, “Goals pay the rent and Keegan does his share”. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Ruud Geels certainly paid his percentage of the rent, wherever he played – 318 in 473 says it all, really.